Prayer on a hamstring: Without Tyson Chandler, the Knicks are defenseless

Chandler and D'Antoni. (nba.com)
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Carmelo Anthony scored 27 points, including 4-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter, and backed by another strong outing from Amar'e Stoudemire (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Jeremy Lin (20 points, four assists, three steals), the Knicks cruised to... a 118-105 loss to the San Antonio Spurs Wednesday night that wasn't as close as the score would indicate.

What gives?

The answer is: The team was missing Tyson Chandler, who was held out of Wednesday's game with a hamstring injury. If the loss of one player, particularly one who doesn't land on the back pages of the tabloids, seems to overstate New York's reliance on him, you probably haven't watched a Knicks game this year.

The Knicks, without Chandler, are a fairly useless defensive team. (The absence of Jared Jeffries, a solid interior defender and normally Chandler's stand-in, only exacerbated matters.) The remainder of the New York starting lineup relies on Chandler to compensate for their defensive shortcomings. And while everyone else on the roster has a reasonable backup, the Knicks lack even that for Chandler, with a player named Jerome Jordan recently summoned from the Developmental League Thursday to assume the role again.

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What it boils down to is that the Knicks cannot hope to compete for a playoff spot, let alone advance, without Tyson Chandler at center. He needs to get well, soon.

Consider the 60 points in the paint scored by the Spurs Wednesday night, on 30-of-46 shooting. The night before, with Chandler playing against Dallas, the Knicks allowed 26 points in the paint, on 13-of-27 shooting.

Ah, but Dallas is a team without a real interior presence—what about, say, Orlando? Back in January, Chandler and the Knicks faced Dwight Howard and the Magic—and the Knicks allowed 20 points in the paint on 10-of-20 shooting. Against Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and the Lakers, the Knicks allowed 22 points in the paint on 11-of-24 shooting.

Note both the reduced attempts and the far lower accuracy of all the teams mentioned. Not only does Chandler reduce the effectiveness of forays to the hoop, he reduces the amount of times opposition offensive players even try to get there.

With a defense filled with players like Stoudemire, who consistently fails to stay in front of the man he is guarding, Anthony, who is only as good of a defender as the amount of effort he puts in, and guards like Lin and Iman Shumpert, who generate turnovers by taking chances—secure in the knowledge Chandler will be behind them to clean up mistakes—it is easy to see why the defense falls apart the moment Chandler isn't around.

To be sure, Chandler isn't a one-dimensional player. He rebounds at an exceptional rate. He is the team's defensive core, yet leads the N.B.A. by a wide margin in field goal percentage, at nearly 70 percent. If the Knicks could identify a reasonable backup for such a player, he'd quickly be scooped up by another team to start.

But still—the gap between Chandler and the raw Jordan is immense, and is the primary reason why Jeffries, too thin and a bit short to guard most centers, has been Chandler's backup. Josh Harrellson got the start in San Antonio, but Harrellson relies on intelligent movement and brute strength to make up for some limitations at even the power forward slot—center is a bridge too far.

Fortunately for the Knicks, Chandler could play as early as Friday in Milwaukee, though the team is (wisely) exercising caution. In a perfect world, the time off will help Chandler to at least somewhat heal his ailing wrist, which has numerous things wrong with it—and yet, hasn't kept Chandler from having the kind of impact he's had for New York on both ends of the floor.

So Carmelo Anthony looked like his old self on Wednesday. That's great. Amar'e Stoudemire seems to be healthy at last. Super. Jeremy Lin keeps proving that he can be relied on, even when opposing teams bear down on him. And that's lovely.

But heaven help the Knicks if anything serious happens to Tyson Chandler.